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What to Cut when Majorities of Americans Support Most Major Government Services?

Political and generational divides abound in a playing field littered with "third rails"

NEW YORK, March 4, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- A new Harris Poll finds that large majorities of the public continue to be supportive of many key government services.  This continuing sentiment underscores the difficulty our leaders face when attempting to curb government spending, given that nearly any cut under consideration, such as recent defense cuts proposed by U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D. NY) will be met with strong resistance from one segment or another. This leaves us, as a nation, with a dilemma: if almost everything is a third rail, where can we look to find fiscal footing?

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These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,266 adults surveyed online between February 12 and 17, 2014. (Full results, including a complete list of the government programs and services tested, available here)

The survey asked about 14 different types of government services and programs, using a list repeated from Harris Polls conducted in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011, in order to measure attitudinal shifts over time; Head Start, a program providing assistance to low-income children and their families, was added for 2014.

Some top findings include:

  • The most popular services and programs, supported by 80% or more of the American public, are Medicare (with 90% supporting it either a great deal or somewhat), crime-fighting and prevention (89%), Social Security (also 89%), National Parks (83%), defense (82%) and federal aid to public schools (80%).
  • Also supported by large majorities of adults are Medicaid (77%), unemployment benefits (also 77%), environmental protection (76%), Head Start (75%) and intelligence services (71%).
  • Majorities – albeit smaller ones – also support food stamps (63%) and Immigration and Naturalization services (58%).
  • The only program on the list that is not supported by a majority of U.S. adults is foreign aid, with only 35% supporting it.

Support for most of these programs and services has fluctuated over the past nine years. But, in looking at just the past few years, support for many of the programs is within two percentage points of where it stood in 2011, the exceptions being Social Security (up 4 points, from 85% to 89%) and Medicaid (up 3 points, from 74% to 77%). Looking back further, support for many of these programs and services is considerably higher than it was in 2005, when the questions were first asked. Top examples of this include Medicare (up 14 points, from 76% to 90%), Social Security (up 13 points, from 76% to 89%) and crime-fighting and prevention (up 12 points from 77% to 89%). 

Differences by generation
Looking specifically at Americans saying they have "a great deal" of support for each program, generational lines play a considerable role in professed support. As might be expected, Baby Boomers (ages 49-67) and Matures (ages 68+) are more likely than Echo Boomers (ages 18-36) or Gen Xers (ages 37-48) to show this level of support for Social Security (46% Echo Boomers, 54% Gen Xers, 74% Baby Boomers, 79% Matures) and Medicare (8%, 55%, 70% and 77%, respectively).

Support skews in the other direction for education related programs and services: Echo Boomers are more likely than any other generation to profess a great deal of support for Head Start (44% Echo Boomers, 33% Gen Xers, 34% Baby Boomers, 27% Matures) and federal aid to public schools (54%, 45%, 40% and 28%, respectively), with Matures less likely than any other generation to show such support for the latter. Matures are also less likely than any of their younger counterparts to support Food Stamps (32%, 24%, 27% and 16%, respectively) a great deal.

Differences by political party and philosophy
Democrats are more likely than Independents – who in turn are more likely than Republicans – to support the majority of the programs evaluated a great deal; key exceptions are defense, which Republicans (58%) are more likely than either Democrats (35%) or Independents (41%) to support a great deal; and intelligence services, which roughly one-fourth support a great deal across party lines (27% Republicans, 25% Democrats, 22% Independents).

What do Americans agree on?
Crime-fighting and prevention appears to be a more unifying concern, with a total of 48% supporting it a great deal and neither generational (44% Echo Boomers, 45% Gen Xers, 51% Baby Boomers, 52% Matures) nor political (47% Republicans, 52% Democrats, 48% Independents) subsets differing significantly from one another.

To see other recent Harris Polls, please visit the Harris Poll News Room.

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This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between February 12 to 17, 2014 among 2,266 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words "margin of error" as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #21, March 4, 2014
By Larry Shannon-Missal, Harris Poll Research Manager

About Nielsen & The Harris Poll
On February 3, 2014, Nielsen acquired Harris Interactive and The Harris Poll.  Nielsen Holdings N.V. (NYSE: NLSN) is a global information and measurement company with leading market positions in marketing and consumer information, television and other media measurement, online intelligence and mobile measurement. Nielsen has a presence in approximately 100 countries, with headquarters in New York, USA and Diemen, the Netherlands. For more information, visit www.nielsen.com.

Press Contact:
Corporate Communications
The Harris Poll
[email protected]

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SOURCE The Harris Poll

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